Atlanta Environmentalist Helps Black Churches Go Green

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Environmental stewardship is a growing concept being embraced by thousands of congregations throughout the country, thanks to a group called Interfaith Power and Light. And — contrary to what some might believe — the black church is no exception. In commemoration of Earth Day, host Michel Martin speaks with Garry Harris, an entrepreneur and ministry leader in Atlanta. Harris talks about how the message of environmental stewardship became a hit with singles at the church he attends — the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's Earth Day, a day that's been set aside to showcase ways to preserve and protect the earth's resources. In a few minutes we'll talk about efforts to improve the quality of food in minority communities in a sustainable way. But first we want to talk about how environmental stewardship is being embraced by religious congregations.

Now, some people might see this as a preoccupation of people with few other concerns and thus not a primary interest of the black church. But one congregation in Atlanta is saying that is not so. Gary Harris is a ministry leader and an environmentalist. He helped transform his congregation, the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King once served, by spreading a green message.

And Gary Harris joins us now from Atlanta to talk about his efforts to help a black church go green. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. GARY HARRIS (Ministry Leader, Ebenezer Baptist Church): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, you initially brought this initiative to the Singles Ministry at your church. Now, Singles Ministries, I think, are generally perceived as a way for people to meet each other, just to kind of get together and so forth. So why did you want to introduce the environmental stewardship idea?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, first off, Michel, I thought that that was a good idea to transition the ministry away from a get-a-date ministry into one that was centered personal development, professional development, community service and environmental stewardship. And at the same time, our mayor here, Shirley Franklin, had initiated a sustainable Atlanta initiative.

So we thought it was good to try and align an initiative around Ms. Franklin's actions and events. So we created the Project Green: Sustainable Ebenezer initiative. And that turned into some 22 projects around the green environmental movement.

MARTIN: I don't know what's so terrible about getting a date, but I take your point that you wanted to grow out of the focus. I'm married, so it's not my issue, I'm just letting you know. But why did you get interested in this? What gave you the idea?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, first off, I've been involved in the energy environmental field for several decades now. And I wanted to take what I was doing in my professional environment and also the community itself and bring it to the church. And that there are some 325,000 churches in the U.S. with congregations averaging around a thousand people.

So that's a tremendous movement in terms of environmental care and environmental stewardship. So we created Project Green: Sustainable Ebenezer with some 22 projects. And they included environmental hikes, a green job fair. We handed out some 6,000 light bulbs on - for a Martin Luther King service day, which set a national record.

MARTIN: And how are some of these things being received?

Mr. HARRIS: Very well. Right now there's a tremendous movement in terms of green and in terms of environmental stewardship and not only in churches, but also at the community at large. And we're getting tremendous support behind it.

MARTIN: You know, some people have this image that - and it is a stereotype, but I'm going to raise it - that black and brown folks, even though they may be the original green people in the sense of, you know, what is soul food but recycled food. And what is, you know, a lot of the practices that they've engaged in over time, you know, recycling and conserving, reuse, our traditional practices. But as people have gotten more affluent, they've gotten away from that. They're just not interested in it, they just don't see it as a priority. Do you think your experience shows that that's not true? Or does it just take a passionate leader like yourself to get people involved?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, that's not true. We have folks from all walks of life as part of our ministry in all socioeconomic levels as well. And they enjoy the project convention activities that we're engaged in. It's all about believing in the movement and being passionate about it and committing towards the environment.

MARTIN: What's been the favorite thing that the church has done so far that people have really appreciated?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, I think it's - believe it or not, it's our hikes. And we talked about earlier about building relationships and we've had about six or seven hikes now into the North Georgia Mountains where folks have really gotten close to the land, the air and the water. And basically understood that we are stewards of the environment. We don't own the environment, but we're stewards and we need to take good care of this.

And that means understanding firsthand how precious jewels that we have in these things.

MARTIN: So have any dates arisen from these hikes? I mean have there been any...

Mr. HARRIS: Well...

MARTIN: ...anybody gotten together on any of these hikes? Let's not forget the singles ministry is still...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: Well, I've seen some folks holding hands, so...

MARTIN: Oh. Okay.

Mr. HARRIS: So that's a start.


Mr. HARRIS: But weve basically taken this movement and created some other entities within the Atlantic community. One is the Center for Sustainable Communities, and that's part of the Atlanta Urban League and that's where we're going to go into minority and disadvantaged communities and - but basically drive them into more sustainable practices.

And that's basically taking 10 attributes, and those include energy and distributed generation, water conservation, policy development, indoor air quality, reduce (unintelligible) again, driving out project events and activities and ensuring that those minority communities not only embrace but make sure that they're an integral part of the lives of those communities. So we start with the (unintelligible) ministry and now we have an entire center for sustainable communities.

MARTIN: Well, that's exciting. Thanks for telling us about it. Garry - and you know what? I'm not going to ask you about your love life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm going to let you off the hook. If you want to let me know, let me know. If you need any help in that area, I'll be happy to look in my Rolodex and see what I can do.

Garry Harris is a board member of the Georgia chapter of Interfaith Power and Light. He works with the Atlanta Urban League. He's a member of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and he has introduced environmental consciousness into their activities there, particularly the singles ministry. He joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Thanks for joining us and Happy Earth Day.

Mr. HARRIS: Thank you.

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